This Story Sucks: What I Learned Teaching LGBTQ Studies

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On my classroom’s back wall, cartoon unicorns distinguish gender from sex and sexuality. Lil Nas X muses on the success of “Old Town Road:” “wow man last year i was sleeping on my sisters floor, had no money, struggling to get plays on my music, suffering from daily headaches, now i’m gay.”

Above a pink triangle, the words I see you. Below it: & I love you.

When I tell men on Grindr that I teach LGBTQ Studies, they either express surprise that my high school offers it, play up a fetish (“I wish you’d been my teacher”), or assume I work at a fancy private school.

In fact, I teach (English, mostly) in one of the poorest public school districts in Massachusetts. I can trace the elective’s origin back to our teachers union. In 2017, the bargaining team strategized about how best to pull the conservative district left. Clear-eyed about our leverage, we chose not to lay a bunch of thorny demands out on the table. Instead, we pruned them. We proposed committees. Years later, the labor-management committee focused on diversity and equity successfully added LGBTQ Studies to the high school’s curriculum.

The inaugural class was small, only a dozen or so students, nearly all of them self-identifying with some letter in the acronym. We started with a bar riot (Stonewall, 1969) and ended with a nightclub massacre (Pulse, 2016). As the semester went on, I loved to see which figures and flash points in queer history resonated with my students.

Curly-haired and lewd, Jason wasn’t easily impressed. But when we listened to Sylvia Rivera recount her story of Stonewall in the documentary Out Rage ’69, he said, surprised by her coarse vernacular, “She sounds like us.” I smiled. “You mean you sound like her.”

One of the lesbians in class fell in love with Audre Lorde. Struck by the excerpt we read of “The Uses of Anger,” Michaela asked her mom to buy her a collection of Lorde’s poetry. She then sped through Zami and Sister Outsider.

After cheering on Damon and Angel in the first episode of Ryan Murphy’s Pose, students went home and binged the series.

And they got chills reading James Merrill’s concrete poem “Christmas Tree,” written at the end of his life before he died of AIDS complications. “Yo, I’m so dumb,” Jaliyah said to us, stunned that anyone could write a poem about a tree that was also a poem about a man, about how they both die, both become “needles and bone” in the end.

That’s a generous montage, though. If I’m honest, I often worried I was getting more out of the class than my students were.

Maybe I should blame the generational gap. There was only one half-out kid in my millennial high school. I spent close to a decade in the closet—from eighth grade (2004), when the word gay began to torment me, until my senior year of college (2013), when I finally came out. In between, I kept my distance from queer people, let alone queer history and culture. I slept with a gay man before I made friends with one. Now out as an adult, I still had a lot to learn, and I was hungry to learn it.

As I connected historical events to one another across time and teased out the movement’s tensions between assimilation and liberation, I reaffirmed my own present-tense identity, politics, and community. Excavating stories of a radical past—from the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries to ACT UP—clarified an inheritance of queer resistance, an orientation toward solidarity, direct action, and supporting those with the least to lose in our fight to win the world we all deserve.

I wanted this for my students, too. I wanted the class to whistle and pop, for every student to walk away from it on fire for the movement. It was a big ask. Unlike the guys I try to impress online, my Gen Z students mostly took the class for granted.

Some students failed the class. One slept through it. In their defense, the course was far from perfect. It was only my first attempt, after all.

It didn’t help that we started before 8 a.m. Students would show up late with Dunkin’ and pay closer attention to their iced coffees than to the YA novels they’d each chosen for independent reading. (Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl stands out as one exception, a page-turner about a trans girl starting at a new school.)

Our classroom also invited gossip about their queer relationships in ways that most did not, a distraction I could hardly begrudge them. Trista mooned over her girlfriend. Lana, a potty-mouthed trans girl, serialized her entanglement with a pair of brothers. They whispered, they shrieked, they slapped each other’s twiggy arms in disbelief.

One particularly memorable Monday, Jason told us his boyfriend had cheated on him over the weekend. He was steamed. As we tried to read from Adrienne Rich’s admittedly dense “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” that morning, he wrote in the margin, “This story sucks.” (To Jason’s credit, that more or less perfectly distills Rich’s argument about heterosexuality.)

In the end, I got over myself. I came to feel grateful for my students’ chill—even a little jealous. Is it too naïve to suggest we’ve come at least that far?

Still, I’m glossing. A majority of my students shared stories of childhood trauma, of brutal secrets and countless slights. It’s gotten better—but only to a point, and considerably more so for some than for others. No amount of glitter can cover up the unabated violence against queer and trans people, particularly of color. My students, for example, voted to raise money for the Trevor Project in order to address the persistently disproportionate rates of LGBTQ suicide and homelessness. I know they’d be horrified by the wave of anti-trans bills currently crashing down on state legislatures.

I just wish you could’ve seen them: unapologetic, unbowed, and—like all teenagers in class—easily off-task and gloriously bored.

I didn’t scold them, then. I chose not to play the role of elder (I’m 29, but age is elastic with teenagers, especially with gay boys like Jason, who thought I was ancient) intent on making the next generation feel painfully indebted for the basic dignity and rights they enjoy. They shouldn’t have to live stuck in a past when we existed only in the shadows, locked away in our closets.

What I did was write them a letter. As we said our goodbyes at the end of the semester, I encouraged them to remember that we all stand on the shoulders of queer and trans ancestors who hid, who loved, who threw bricks, who were murdered, who tore up dance floors, who lost families and chose new ones.

That to choose a family is to want to make them proud.

The message landed, I think—at least somewhat, at least for some of them. I know because I asked them to write me back.

In her letter, Michaela called our class her “home.” Many of them did. “This is like family,” she wrote. She also quoted Audre Lorde, whose work she now reads most mornings to motivate herself out of bed: “Your silence will not protect you.” Michaela promised to always speak up.

Lana, however, was brief. She ripped a page out of her notebook and scribbled across it, “Your the gayest teacher ive ever had and thats great for you.” A bubble hovered above the i, fit to burst.

Image Credit: Pixabay